Weekends are the worst days of the week for reading blogs and adding podcasts to the listening queue. Monday is nearly the best because the Sunday evening premium-TV sexplosion pushes the culture forward and gives it new fizz for one more week. Monday is Increment Day. If I were religious I suppose Sundays (or Fridays, or Saturdays) would be full of online entertainment because of the soapbox potential for religious writers. I wouldn’t know. But for the rest of us consumers of media, Saturdays and pre-evening Sundays are the dead time of our week. We have to drink and riot sometime, I suppose.
So I’ve decided to make everyone’s weekends worse with my own guaranteed Saturday posts. It isn’t really worse for you, the reader, because you don’t exist. This is 2013, and unknown blogs are a few AU past passé. I’m fairly certain that the only hits I get are robotic or accidental. That said, ritual practice is what the Sabbath is all about and as an atheist I’ve missed out on that benefit of incrementing my week with a regular bit of writing.
Yes, Philosophy is Dead
I listen to podcasts from the BBC. I have several months’ worth of In Our Time episodes piled up on my hard drive that I dole out to my phone. I consume In Our Time… religiously. Well, not religiously. I binge on it, which is a way to practice religion but not a healthy way. But while I can take or leave many of the BBC’s other shows—I’m finding Bertrand Russell’s Reith Lectures from 1948 numbingly slow going, despite their historical interest—I do tend to at least give a chance to episodes of less well-formed shows like In Science (an as yet terrible replacement for the excellent Material World) or The Infinite Monkey Cage.
The Infinite Monkey Cage is often annoying in the same ways as In Science. In the show from December of 2010, “Is Philosophy Dead?“, the monkeys (a celebrity physicist, two comedians, and a pop-philosopher) line up against Raymond Tallis, an implacably rigid foe of cognitive science. Throughout the episode Tallis is forced back repeatedly to the point that philosophy is not dead because science will never “understand” consciousness. Without any cognitive scientists to consult, of course, there isn’t much active refutation of Tallis’s points. This is interesting for a situation where Tallis is essentially making the same point as theologians did six hundred years ago when they pointed out that natural science (still termed natural philosophy at the time) would never understand the movement of the cosmos around the Earth. The Infinite Monkey Cage could have made use of at least one advocate for science that was both engaged and hostile.
What makes this episode an illustration of why Philosophy-Capital-P is indeed dying, or at least dissolving into an introductory text to other disciplines, is the lack of rigor its practitioners can have in using its own terms in public discourse—this lack of rigor may be instead an expression of their contempt for the public audience. When “doing” philosophy back and forth to each other, philosophers’ usage of terms are deemed important enough to write entire books about them, but in public discourse Tallis is throwing around the word “understanding” as if it didn’t require a 100,000 word dissertation to fully explicate the particular gyrations Tallis puts the word through.
During this show Tallis uses “understanding” to refer to the conscious integration of an idea and goes further to claim that science does not, and cannot, ever understand consciousness. This is fine for as far as that goes but seems to belie the fact that modern and post-modern scientific advances rely on mathematical formulations that cannot be consciously “understood” in any sense, much less the sense Tallis is using. Just look at the field of quantum mechanics. Very few (none?) “understand” quantum mechanics in the way Tallis seems to demand. So science isn’t necessarily attempting to “understand” anything in the way that Tallis uses the term.
“Understanding” in Tallis’ sense can only be the conscious integration an idea so that its contemplation and manipulation is relatively automatic. This is achieved when the study of a subject results in the capacity to come up with a workable solution to a problem without turning the problem into an mathematical exercise and rigorously doing all the sums. The form of understanding Tallis is using, from studies done by cognitive scientists, seems to rely on internalized heuristics and emotional measures of confidence. So a baseball outfielder understands the motion of a baseball’s trajectory through practice and is tested on the field every game. He doesn’t do differential equations. The fielder develops his heuristics by chasing the emotional validation he gets from a successful test. So being able to catch the ball is a measure of the fielder’s gestalt, studied, but essentially practiced understanding. I’m sure Tallis would argue that conscious understanding has nothing to do with heuristics but he doesn’t really offer the kind of Vulcan Mind Meld short version of what he’s talking about… which proves my point.
When it comes to mathematical ways of understanding we already understand a few of the pieces of consciousness and we will come to understand more. At some point we’ll begin building consciousnesses. We’re already beginning to build heuristics about what a consciousness would look like using existing brains as models. It appears that much of the difficulty is in understanding the physical structure of brains that already exist. So far, experiment is restrained by technological limitations, not mathematical definitions.
Understanding the Death of Philosophy
Understanding in the sense I ascribe to Tallis really is the original product of philosophy. Philosophers laid down general rules and heuristics to the elite (with specially dumbed-down versions for the masses) which they can use as assumptions whenever they are tempted to duplicate the heavy lifting done by the philosophers. In this heuristic sense, understanding is the wisdom received from people who’ve worked things out in detail and (hopefully) tested their work.
In 400 BCE, this was the revolutionary product of the philosophers as they began their thousand-year-long assault on religion. For roughly the last three to five hundred years (after the ascendancy of philosophy over religion) understanding has been produced increasingly by scientists, engineers, and other technical people. The contribution of philosophy to understanding that has happened most recently is classified as mathematics and computational theory. Tallis specifically claims these as continuing to be parts of philosophy. For him, philosophy remains the superset of knowledge.
But it’s funny. People working on the edges of mathematical logic and computational theory don’t seem to apply their findings directly to the things that people who call themselves philosophers do. They have opinions about things like the ultimate meaning of everything, free will, materialism, and questions about the nature of consciousness and cognition, but the only concrete contributions that new mathematical and computational theories tend to make is in mathematics and computational theory. Experimental science is informed by the math but strikes out ahead of it and often finds much room in apparent mathematical contradictions. The math is narrowed down by experiment, not the other way around.
For the bleeding edge, then, mathematical theory can be used to form heuristics for exploration. Presenting the heuristic sense of a body of mathematics to practitioners and finding possible wiggle-room is an area of philosophical reasoning that is useful, but subordinate to both the mathematics and the science. Imposition of heuristic divinations by philosophers on the hard sciences still happens, but more and more rarely. The crucial place where philosophical divination currently likes to steamroll the investigations of working practitioners seems to be in the field of economics. There the heuristic rulemakers still attempt to rule from the editorial pages of the Edwardian era.
Philosophy’s Zombie Unlife, or, What Is the Further Function of Philosophy?
First, philosophy cannot, as Raymond Tallis hopes, put itself forward to offer absolute statements about the limits and future of a scientific field. In this case, using what I assume is a kind of blanket application of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem—he offers no specifics—Tallis simply states that science cannot understand consciousness.
So what can philosophy do? Philosophy can only function to provide a framework for heuristic understanding of knowledge for laymen, students, and practitioners of a field attempting to educate themselves about the bits they aren’t directly investigating. Philosophy mediates between the novice and the mathematically-stated state of the art. Philosophy does not make management decisions about what is or isn’t possible. Philosophy provides heuristics made-to-order for the world and not the other way around. The function of philosophy, in a word, is to educate.
So the further work of philosophy is to create new heuristics and revise existing heuristics to facilitate gestalt confidence in a scientific subject for laymen, students, and practitioners. This includes mathematics but crucially cannot lose itself in the desire to self-referentially climb the pole of mathematical understanding to reclaim primacy. Philosophy, as a system of heuristics for inducing confident understanding, cannot be supplanted by mathematics simply because so much of mathematics does not lend itself to generating heuristics.
The applicability of mathematical concepts themselves cannot be so easily determined for experimental fields without the actual experiments being performed. Philosophy mediates this, but philosophical predictions that apply conclusions of one field to another have stepped outside the realm of heuristic integration and education and into divination. As heuristics, these divinations can be useful but they are only heuristics. They serve to educate and impart gestalt understanding but they can also be graded as to usefulness. A heuristic that says “understanding consciousness is impossible based on my meta-logical understanding of mathematics applied to cognitive science where the mathematics and meta-logic isn’t yet well understood” is a terrible heuristic, but that is essentially what Raymond Tallis is attempting to do. Without a good heuristic framework for understanding its conclusion the heuristic itself is not useful in any way. It communicates nothing and educates no one.
A good general heuristic would be one of the many that is already being used in the field of cognitive science: consciousness already exists in the human brain. The physical structure, state, and health of the brain seems to have a great influence on the state of consciousness, so it seems that further investigation of the physical brain will yield more understanding of consciousness.
Final Words to Philosophers
You don’t have much time, so be useful.
Seriously, though, public philosophers must be educators and communicators. They are lovers of wisdom, and public lovers of wisdom should command at least some respect. It’s not like you’re in Marketing. Also, as articulate and respected public lovers of wisdom, philosophers should take the field of education away from the increasingly right-wing bureaucrats of the public and private educational systems and the “educational materials” industry. Or conversely, if you are a teacher tired of being talked down to by an increasingly necromantic and corporate administration, recast yourself as a philosopher and develop heuristics to share with your students and your fellows.